Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a jibe at the World Bank on Sunday, implying that it had given into the pressure of environmental activists like the Narmada Bachao Andolan when it stopped funding the Sardar Sarovar dam project in the mid-1980s, until Gujarat’s temples stepped in and saved the day.
From Sardar Patel to Marshal Arjan Singh (who died on Saturday), to Babasaheb Ambedkar to the thirsty jawan at a BSF post on the Gujarat border with Pakistan to the World Bank, the prime minister connected several dots as he inaugurated the world’s second largest dam project (after the Grand Coulee Dam in the US) on his 67th birthday at Dabhoi town in Gujarat on Sunday. He stated that he was keeping an eye on the Statue of Unity for Sardar Patel, whose cladding has just arrived from China. Nor did he forget to wish badminton player P V Sindhu for winning the Korean Open. “You know me, I can’t do small things. I don’t think small, I don’t do small. With 1.25 billion people with me, I can’t dream small,” the PM said, flanked by Transport, Highways and Water Resources Minister Nitin Gadkari and Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani.
In a tweet, the PM said : This project will benefit lakhs of farmers and help fulfill people’s aspirations. The inauguration of the dam in Gujarat is seen as a political gesture, especially as 85 per cent of the Narmada river’s catchment area lies in Madhya Pradesh. But the prime minister is from Gujarat, and elections are taking place in the state at the end of this year. Elections in Madhya Pradhesh, run by Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan for the last 12 years, will take place next year in 2018.
Only five hours from Dabhoi, or 271 km away, at Chota Barda village in Dhar, Madhya Pradesh, India’s best-known water activist Medha Patkar was offering “jal satyagraha” along with 30 fellow activists of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, vowing not to move from the spot even if the waters submerged them. “People will drown in the Narmada, but they will not move. Even as Modiji’s birthday is being celebrated with pomp and style, thousands of families will meet an untimely end,” Patkar said.
But the prime minister was invoking several mythological comparisons, casting himself in the role of the Son of India, notwithstanding its patriarchal connotations. “When a son gives water to its parched mother earth, what can be a bigger feeling of satisfaction. When animals will bless for the green pastures created by Sardar Sarovar, I will be a grateful son of Bharat Mata,” the PM said. He was also the direct legatee of independent India’s most important leaders, Modi said. “From the land of Bapu and Sardar Patel, the Sardar Sarovar dam is dedicated to the nation today. This will benefit crores of citizens,” he added on his Twitter timeline.
Certainly, the World Bank, which is formulating a new India strategy for its largest loan recipient, seems to have caught the attention of the prime minister. Last week, officials from the ministries of water resources and external affairs were in Washington DC to participate in World Bank brokered meetings with Pakistan on the Indus Waters Treaty, as if placating international opinion that India would not take any drastic steps with regard to the most basic issue of water.
This week, Modi was chastising the World Bank for daring to defy India and refusing a loan to build the Sardar Sarovar dam. Finance minister Arun Jaitley is travelling to Washington DC next month for talks with World Bank president Jim Yong Kim. “A massive misinformation campaign was launched against the project. The World Bank which had earlier agreed to fund the project, refused to give loan for it raising environmental concerns. But, with or without the World Bank, we completed the massive project on our own,” the PM told a large gathering in Dabhoi.
The charm of the big project, from the days of Jawaharlal Nehru who laid the foundation of the Sardar Sarovar in 1961, certainly continues to hold the Indian imagination in thrall. As long back as 1979, the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal approved the construction of 3000 small, 135 medium, 30 major and 2 mega dams – the Sardar Sarovar and the Narmada Sagar – spanning the 1,312 km-long Narmada river which flows across the states of Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra before draining into the Arabian Sea.
The Narmada Valley authority is a multi-billion dollar project which will flood at least 13,385 hectares of forest land, displace thousands of tribal villages which will be submerged when the dam waters rise, including fertile lands. But it is also expected to provide water to 9000 villages and electricity to many more. Vijay Rupani has labeled it the “lifeline” of Gujarat.
Meanwhile, Twitter India clambered aboard the bandwagon of people wishing the prime minister happy birthday, with several balloons exploding on Narendra Modi’s Twitter page as soon as you open it.